The battle of derby day may have been lost but the war for the Premier League title still definitely looks to be won by Manchester United. A twentieth league title (that makes it TWO more than Liverpool, or, if you just go on Premier League trophies, 13-0) is clearly within United’s grasp. This is all very good but United are not a club like Chelsea, who will take trophies in the short-term at the expense of long-term stability; they are a club with a history, an ethos. Manchester United’s fondness of long-term plans are shown by the way that Ferguson has regenerated his squad numerous times and the fact that two of the most well-known squads in the club’s history, though one was tragically torn apart by the Munich air disaster, were the Busby babes and Fergie’s fledglings.
Sir Alex Ferguson has served the club for nearly 27 years and his teams have won countless trophies and awards under his reign. However, as he is well aware, he will not last forever and will have to retire at some point, probably in the not too distant future. After Matt Busby, United’s last long-term manager, departed as manager in 1969 the club went through a barren spell, winning just a single FA Cup in a 14 year period and, even after a brief resurgence under Ron Atkinson, only managing to win 4 trophies outright in the 17 years between Busby and Ferguson’s reigns.
Manchester United’s main problem, far from being wary of their rivals and noisy neighbours, is how to deal with the delicate matter of the succession. Whether Ferguson retires or is retired, there are many things which could potentially go wrong. He may decide to stay on too long, United reaching a similar situation to the one taking place at Arsenal at the moment; no silverware for years but the long-serving manager is kept in place out of respect for the years of trophies which he has brought to the club in the past. No United fan would want to get to the point where the Twittersphere is calling “#FergieOut” and it would certainly be a sad end to a long and distinguished career if that were to happen.
What if the United board decide in years to come that Sir Alex is past his peak and should leave for the good of the club? If he was asked, would Fergie walk or would he have to be pushed? In a battle of Sir Alex Ferguson versus the Manchester United board, even if the Scot’s departure would be good for the club, the ripples of disturbance would be large and far-reaching, even if the dispute was kept behind closed doors. By all accounts then, it would be better to have a successor to Sir Alex in place, or at least in mind, before he left his post at Manchester United.
This, though, leaves the possibly unanswerable question of who could adequately fill the shoes of Sir Alex Ferguson. Before the rumours of him returning to Chelsea, José Mourinho seemed to some like a natural replacement; his arrogance, tendency to engage in mind games and tactical awareness made him appear as the natural heir to the United throne. However, the way in which he has allegedly fallen out with key players at Real Madrid and the fact that he has hopped from club-to-club with ease has put doubts in the minds of some. Will he be a long-term replacement, willing to develop youth players and give squads entire makeovers over time or will he just swan in, win a few trophies and then depart, leaving the same gaping hole that he had temporarily filled?
Manchester United have a strong history of developing young players into incredibly talented individuals and are one of the few clubs who can afford to carry a gangly youth in their side until they mature and grow into their role. Any new manager will need to acknowledge that part of their job will be to continue this trend of integrating youngsters into the main squad, while at the same time managing to compete seriously across several competitions.
I think that many United fans will also want a manager who is prepared to stay at the club for more than a couple of seasons. They won’t need to match Sir Alex’s feat of holding the helm for over a quarter of a century but some sense of longevity wouldn’t go amiss. Although squad regeneration can be done by a series of managers, United fans may feel that a succession of managerial mercenaries is more in the style of their rivals Chelsea or Manchester City.
The main fear, though, as with all managerial changeovers, is that the new man (or woman, although that is extremely unlikely) will not be as successful as his predecessor. Obviously, a record like Ferguson’s is hard to match but fans will not want their reign of dominance to come to an end or, even worse, be replaced by the noisy neighbours as the giants of English league football. Supporters will of course be reminded that Sir Alex didn’t win a trophy until his fourth season at the club but, with examples of clubs who have fallen from their perch like Liverpool and Arsenal in fresh in fans’ memory, they will be keen for whoever takes over from Fergie to find their stride soon.
At many top clubs, the brief for new managers is simple: bring success. But at United, the manager will also have to keep the spirit of the club going as well, something which will limit the pool of potential candidates to those who understand what the club is ‘about’. Ferguson’s successor will have to match both criteria if they are to be taken in by the fans. There is a possibility also that managers who do not ‘get’ United may also leave after a good few seasons. If a succession of this ‘type’ of manager is allowed, the next generation of Manchester United players may not be ready to take their places in the first team when the old guard retire. Holding off Manchester City and the billions at their disposal is one thing, finding an adequate successor for Sir Alex Ferguson will prove to be quite another.